Dana E. Abizaid
December 10, 2015

Donald Trump’s campaign has taken on the task of trying to make America great again. The slogan brings with it a wallop of exceptionalism that demands an uncritical and skewed reading of US History, or simply the ignoring of the historical record. What the Historian Michael Kammen called “the mystical chords of memory” are well at play in a contemporary America where to question the nation’s assumed prior greatness by looking critically at its past is the fastest way to be excluded from the adult table at Christmas dinner.

But such questioning is essential in the constant struggle to keep the nation moving forward to reach what James Madison called “a more perfect Union”. Despite what Trump and others believe, the US has never attained greatness. It has been good and needs to be better.

The Trump campaign slogan is indicative of rhetoric that distorts meaning for political gain or to build self-esteem. In fact, raising the nation’s self-esteem is the priority of all politicians’, no matter which side of the aisle they occupy. With the myth of the American dream all but destroyed by Washington elites themselves, new myths must be created. The myth of past greatness serves that purpose. It keeps people accepting criminally high college tuitions, getting less money and fewer benefits for more work, and paying taxes that prop up a military-industrial complex that is bankrupting the nation.

But raising self-esteem and building a strong, functioning society are completely different endeavors. And there are many indications that US society is not functioning well, including World Health Organization findings that the US has the highest rate of mental illness in the world. The mass shooting epidemic is the most visible evidence of this ill. Other issues: a 2014 Center for Disease Control report ranked the US 27th among wealthy countries in keeping babies alive, behind Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia; according to Pearson, the US ranks 14th in education worldwide, one behind Russia; and although the US ranks 1st in health care costs it ranks last in quality amongst developed nations. Considering rankings like this the temptation to resort to past greatness myths is understandable as is the population’s willingness or need to believe.

Perhaps these are areas that Trump and other presidential candidates aspire to improve. Most likely not. The great America they aspire to recreate might look a lot like the one that the Public Religion Research Institute found attractive among 43% of white Americans: the 1950s. The Fonz, Richie Cunningham and Potsie Weber might like that, too. But African-Americans, Mexican immigrants, women, or basically anybody not a White Anglo-Saxon male might find the return to that “great” America of segregation quite scary.

Maybe Trump is referring to what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation”, those Americans who helped defeat Nazi and Imperial Japanese fascism in Europe and Asia. But bringing back that greatness would entail requiring US citizens to fulfill some type of civic duty like serving in the military. Sadly, the generation that fought in WWII has mostly died out and so has its example. The fighting has been left to an all-volunteer force since 1973 that in reality serves as a private military for increasingly powerful imperial presidents. Any attempt to reinstitute the draft to fight America’s imperial wars would surely lead to 1960s like uprisings on college campuses. Students might finally become aware of the overseas adventures their nation engages in. Better to talk of greatness than to try to achieve it and risk giving young Americans and their parents the incentive to turn against war rather than to passively accept it.

Much like Ronald Reagan before him and many in the US government today, Trump believes in the seductive supremacy of US arms. But the US military’s post-WWII record is suspect: a draw in Korea, a loss in Vietnam, and quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. Successes against Grenada, Panama, and Serbia (with NATO’s help) and pushing Saddam’s army out of Kuwait in 1991 shouldn’t bolster anybody’s confidence in the US military’s ability to affect the sweeping change Trump envisions. A critical, though unpopular, view may even question to what extent the US was mainly responsible for the victory in Europe in WWII. The historical record is clear that the Soviets staved off a brutal Nazi assault on the Eastern front that began in June 1941. The spectacular US led invasion of Europe in June 1944 was a great event in world history but without the Soviet effort (27 million dead) it may never have occurred.

Consequently, Trump’s slogan signifies a disturbing lack of historical perspective among the American public. Americans have struggled every step of the way for the rights promised in the Declaration of Independence and confirmed in the US Constitution. Popular movements against slavery and child labor, and the promotion of women’s and Native Americans’ rights were hard fought battles. The right to unionize or receive social benefits was resisted by many in Washington and still is. If there is anything great about America it is this struggle. But this is not what Trump is referring to.

Thomas Jefferson believed that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” What he and the founders sought to create was an educated population that could detect lies in order to safeguard their freedom against charlatans. The mere existence of Trump and other Republican candidates speaks volumes about how US education has failed and continues to woefully fail in training its citizens to detect lies.

Thus, the lie of a once great America distracts our attention away from simply making a better America. And a better America is what we need.